The Bordello…

I write poetry of love and healing in a turn of the century bordello houseboat now attached to Mallard Island, now called “Cedar Bark” and now housing writers come for retreat. I imagine this place once rocking with imported civilization in the form of a wind-up victrola playing Schubert or Mozart. Once a place of passion, sometimes disconnected, painful passion.

Young men sought fulfillment from loneliness, craved softness in any form after months cold, months wet, soggy, and in the company of only men. They had put softness out of their minds, out of their vocabularies. Now they spend themselves (and their hard-earned dollars) on images of softness that would not last but seemed the day’s answer, the dare, the only respite.

Meanwhile the women! Toughened mentally and physically, they punch in the girdle, punch up the breasts, paint the lips, feign the softness so desperately sought. They knew, their muscle and bone knew that this was not a soft business but a harsh and lonely one. It was not softness that sustained them here, and it was a supreme challenge to maintain the image of sensuality when met with the smells, the fungus, the beards, the callous hands and hearts that ravaging this land had left on these men.

Lillian knew her six girls well. She had used the money left when her father died to purchase this houseboat, supporting the only business she had ever known. Camille was the one she worried about; she had arrived only a week ago and needed careful attention—men did not pay when their consort broke into tears. More than that, Lil could see some of herself in Cammie. Nobody really asked for this life, but in times of poverty and given the opportunity, a healthy and rounded body was the only asset. The path (or stream) sometimes led to the bordellos.

As she saw the business through Cammie's eyes, she feared it for a time, all over again. The other girls were so hard by this time that it was all a joke. Yet Cammie could still go back... Today, Lil would see to it that this sweet one was partnered with one of the quieter boys.

There were many boys who in like manner did not fit into the ravaging—they saved the birds’ nests under their bunks. There were also some who would never prefer this gender match, though they dared not admit this even to themselves. These boys had gentle eyes, at first anyway, yet the same unrelenting logging camp dares had led them, in their virginity, to this boat.

Camilla and Jonathan lie together, talking softly about their lives, their plans and hopes for their futures. The water softly laps under the timbers mooring this boat to rock.

“How do you manage with these blisters?” she asked gently. He cleared his throat. “How do you manage in all this hustle?” he replied. “My daddy needs the money,” their voices spoke in unison. And then they laughed. “Yeah, it’s supposed to be the other way around, but sometimes it isn’t,” said Jonathan.

And they lay there in the window of their honesty with each other, and let the boat rock them gently. It was blessed respite, each from their own duties, and no one need be the wiser that neither child played the role they were expected to play.

Now, in 1996, new water softly burbles under the same timbers. Mosquitoes snap against the screens. We three women who sleep here can each sleep alone, can nurture our own softness, can let down the image and speak from the heart. The men come to this place can dream of softness, even dare to preach it. They tell us to be dreamers of the culture. We are all, for now, much more free.

Yet the same timber industry is still ravaging the land—in a new generation. "We" are still cutting the trees as fast as we can, more for paper and pulpwood now, and now huge clawed tractors speed up the process by eighty-times! Seed trees left standing in the clear-cuts are in danger of blowing over in new winds, and most will slowly ‘bleed’ to death from wounds left by those tractors. Newspapers are still, for the most part, printed on virgin timber and are still pumping out imagery, or at best closing their editorial eyes to the facts. The prostitution of our northern forests continues apace.

How can we begin to remember what it is we've forgotten? How can we recognize our own bordello histories and re-create, reach back to the best of round and indigenous wisdom?

Take the industrial system down log by log, linear thinker by thinker, hardened one by one, mill by mill. Let the social system fail completely-- into food shortages, heating shortages if it must—with changes too all-at-once to be saved by their precious technology. Let communities be forced to create. Let the sense of direction get so utterly confused that communities finally listen to their poets.

Can this bordello (and all the others) rebuilt with new purpose reach over their ancient histories back to the truth of the ages?


The sun breaks through the clouds, pours into the bordello windows sending its long shafts of light across the corner of the old mahogany victrola. I wind her up, put on a tinny Mozart symphony, and imagine the civilization such sounds brought to this place. As the poets here assemble for dinner, I pray that we can hold on to our creativity, and that we will, one day be asked to lead. Then I pray that we will, one day, have something to say.

--Beth E. Waterhouse
edits 2004.
Mallard Island